It's not every day that the New York Times blog devoted to photography -- it's called Lens -- runs a piece about Pine Bluff, Ark. (pop. 47,000). But it did just the other day when Evelyn Nieves' blog post featured the work of William Widmer, a photographer out of New Orleans who was driving through Pine Bluff on his way back home from an assignment in Kansas City, and was stopped cold by what he saw. The town had captivated him. The photographer would wind up spending the rest of the day in Pine Bluff walking its streets, snapping photos, and trying to figure out how soon he could get back. So he could take more pictures of what can't be pictured, only felt.
I understand. I went to Pine Bluff for the first time in the middle of a long-ago summer looking for a job to tide me over for a year till I could get back to graduate school in history, and wound up spending 30 years there. Through a lot of the town's ups and downs, mainly downs. I should have realized from the start that I'd walked into history all around me, or maybe sociology. Specifically, a chapter of John Dollard's classic study, "Caste and Class in a Southern Town."
That bright weekday morning now more than 50 years ago in the past, I walked out of the Pines Hotel on Main Street and looked right and left, wondering which way the Pine Bluff Commercial could be. That's when a tall, sunburned country type in khaki approached. Yes, he knew where the Commercial was, whereupon he took my elbow and steered me gently to the far edge of the broad sidewalk. So he could point out just how to get there -- over the railroad tracks, past this store and that, which he named one by one, till I'd get almost to the courthouse and there I'd find it on the same side of the street. It was quite a different experience from any I'd had asking for directions in the place I'd just come from -- teeming New York City.
I was definitely back in the South. It was as though this man had all the time in this world and the next to show me the way. And maybe he did because over the years I began to think of him as one of those angels you come across in life without knowing it at the time.
I can understand why Mr. William Widmer's first sight of Pine Bluff caught his artist's eye. "It was a clear, crisp Southern winter day," he recalls, "and downtown was still and vacant. That first walk, the light was perfect down Main Street." Yes, I can imagine it -- even see it, hear it, feel it. The boarded-up storefronts, the echoes of the life that was once there, the now abandoned hulk that was the Pines Hotel, the crumbling old Saenger theater ... the whole afterlife of a Southern town.